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Mo. Leaders Gauge President Obama’s First 100 Days

April 29, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Gwen Ifill moderated a town hall meeting in advance of President Obama's trip to St. Louis, asking local leaders and residents to assess his first 100 days as president.

RAY SUAREZ: And to our own forum. Gwen Ifill has been spending the week in St. Louis. Last night, she moderated a town meeting in advance of President Obama’s trip to the area. It was held in the studios of our local PBS affiliate, KETC. Here are extended excerpts.

GWEN IFILL: Is the nation on the right or wrong track after 100 days? I’m here with a curious local audience and a panel of elected officials and local leaders.

They are: Democratic Congressman William Lacy Clay, Jr. He represents the greater St. Louis area.

Patti York, the Republican mayor of neighboring St. Charles, Mo.

Democrat Christopher Krehmeyer, a housing and community activist in St. Louis.

And Republican John Danforth, who represented Missouri in the U.S. Senate for nearly two decades.

Welcome, everybody.

Mayor York, I’m going to start with you and ask everybody else to weigh in on this, as well. One hundred days in to the Obama administration, if you were to give the president a grade based on what your needs are and your concerns are, what would it be?

PATTI YORK, mayor, St. Charles, Mo.: I would say probably about a B. We’re working on a lot of issues. And I appreciate the fact that he’s looking at local communities, looking at the broad picture, but also back into what is good for the community, things like the COPS program.

That was a program that allows communities to hire policemen and is paid for by subsidy, so to speak. And it’s paid for, for three years. Then we take up the tab from there. Those are kind of monies that really help a neighborhood, and that’s really important to us.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Danforth, what would you say?

FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH, R-Mo.: Well, measured against his program, I’d say an A-plus. He is a very effective politician. He has, I think, made remarkable progress on his agenda in 100 days.

But I think it’s important to recognize that he has really changed course for this country. I mean, when he talked about change, he meant it. This is a very, very dramatic change in favor of the power of the federal government, and particularly the power of the presidency.

By my standards, I think that this is a very serious misdirection for the country. And I really am concerned that there hasn’t been more comment on it, because, I mean, going back to our earliest days, the Constitutional Convention, the debates between Jefferson and Hamilton, all of this had to do with, how much power should be in how many hands and how much power should be concentrated?

And we are talking about very big government, very powerful government, and government that is in the process of taking over a lot of decisions that were in the private sector and a lot of decisions that were made at the state and local levels.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Clay, the gauntlet has been thrown down. You’re a strong Obama supporter. What do you think about what Senator Danforth said?

REP. WILLIAM LACY CLAY, JR., D-Mo.: I would certainly give the president an A-plus. He has changed the trajectory of this country in a matter of 100 days by, first, getting the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed, investing $787 billion into an American economy that was on the brink of disaster.

He has given over 11 million children health care. He has banned torture. He has closed Guantanamo. He has certainly given us a date for pulling out of Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: So when you hear Senator Danforth say this is a change of trajectory, but a bad change, what do you say?

REP. WILLIAM LACY CLAY, JR.: I don’t necessarily agree with that. When you think about the previous eight years, there was no consensus in Washington. There was no real emphasis on the people of this country, on their agenda, on what matters to Americans.

It was quite a bit of focus on what was happening in Iraq and how we directed a war on a country that we never should have been at war with. But there was no real emphasis in Washington on giving a tax break to 95 percent of American taxpayers, like this president has done.

Grading Obama's performance

GWEN IFILL: Chris Krehmeyer, local grassroots level, looking at Washington and hearing the arguments which have been laid out so far in this panel, what do you think?

CHRIS KREHMEYER, Community Activist: I think he gets an A-plus. I think the key for us who are in the trenches every day, what he's providing is a sense of -- if we're trying to perfect this union of ours, that folks have been suffering for years, not just the last eight years, but for many, many years prior to that.

And what he's saying is we can and should do better, and we're going to use the power of government to lead, to say folks shouldn't be homeless, and kids shouldn't go to bed hungry, and neighborhoods shouldn't suffer under the weight of poverty, and foreclosure shouldn't decimate communities, and we should do better. And if it takes government to lead, then so be it.

GWEN IFILL: There seems to be such a difference of opinion on the panel that it basically boils down to your view of the power of government and how the power of government should be deployed.

Mayor York, do you think that the power of government has been overweening? For instance, has your city benefited at all from the stimulus money that Washington sent out to the country?

PATTI YORK: Very measured at this point in time. I know we had to do a lot of work to get all of our programs together. And where we needed the money, we did, I mean, hours and hours of applications.

And then, when it came back, it was very little into what we had thought it was supposed to be. We thought it was supposed to be boots on the ground, ready-to-go projects, and that's not what it ended up being for us, in particular.

Personally, I really would have liked to see some of these programs, instead of just a massive giveaway to cities and communities, I would have liked to see more of a loan program that we, as a city, could build a sewer treatment plant, but borrow that money from the federal government, even at a 0 percent loan.

We have a $40 million sewer treatment -- two treatment plants ready to go, but, for some reason, treatment plants were under a different program, and therefore that money isn't there. And those are the kind of things that I think would really rebuild our communities from the inside out.

GWEN IFILL: Rebuilding communities from the inside out, Congressman Clay, why isn't that the way to do it, by creating a situation in which the communities themselves can rebuild instead of, as the mayor seems to think, throwing money?

REP. WILLIAM LACY CLAY, JR.: Well, when you think about $787 billion going towards infrastructure projects, going towards floodwalls, going towards sewer systems, projects that have been neglected for years in this country by communities for whatever reason -- perhaps they didn't have the revenue to go and fix these sewer systems, to fix streets, roads and bridges -- when you think about infusing the economy in that way, stimulating the economy to keep jobs and to create jobs, that is the reason the Congress joined with the president to pass the stimulus bill, to infuse the American economy. And if we had done nothing, I wonder where the country would be?

Tone of American politics

GWEN IFILL: All right. Well, we are going to turn now to some questions from our audience here.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I'm wondering if you are as concerned as I am about the deepening division in our country between conservative and liberal Americans that Obama's presidency and his policies seems to have engendered, I think with the recent tea parties being a good example of that.

JOHN DANFORTH: The tone of politics in America has, I think, really disintegrated badly. It is much more partisan. I think that the center has been pretty well marginalized in American politics, and I think that that's too bad.

I'm not sure exactly what the reason for this is. I have a suspicion that, in part, it's the 24-hour news channels on television, which are really shouting heads. They're not talking heads. And they tend to polarize us in the extreme.

But let me just say this: Politics is about differences of ideas. Politics is about presenting to the voter different perspectives on government and on the course of government. We do have very really differences on that. I think that they've been expressed already on this panel. How big should government be? How expensive should it be? How intrusive should it be? How much power should it have to enforce its programs?


AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you. As a history teacher, I would ask what each of the panelists would think would be the lasting success that President Obama will have from his first 100 days.

GWEN IFILL: Lasting success. Go ahead, Christopher Krehmeyer. Try that one.

CHRIS KREHMEYER: Again, I think this notion of change. I mean, I think he's -- we can debate whether we like the change. I think it's the right direction. But he's changing the tone and tenor.

Come another 100, 200, 300, 400 days, if there's not some action, if there is not, you know, movement on the ground, then we're going to grow a little weary. But I think he's going to have some patience right now, because changing the discourse, the dialogue, changing how we think about our role and our connectedness to our neighbors will take a little bit of time.

But at some point, we're going to have to see some action. We're going to have to see some deliverables. We're going to have to see some positive movement.

The president's nature

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Would you say that Barack Obama, President Barack Obama, is an idealist or a pragmatist when it comes to policy formation? And why?

GWEN IFILL: That's a good question.

Go for it, Congressman.

REP. WILLIAM LACY CLAY, JR.: Very good question. Can I start?

GWEN IFILL: You may.

REP. WILLIAM LACY CLAY, JR.: I'll say he's a pragmatist, because he has reached out across the aisle. He's tried to change the way we operate in Washington.

When you think about it, he's met with the Republican leadership in both the House and the Senate. He's tried to bring them to his side with very little success, but he keeps going back, and he keeps asking them.

I was fortunate enough to be at a social function last week at the White House with about 25 members of Congress, and it was almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. He governs in that manner.

GWEN IFILL: You have another question here in the audience. Sir?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you very much. I didn't come prepared really to ask a question, but I really enjoyed your responses thus far. I think my question would be, if you were president, what one thing that President Obama has done that you would do differently?

GWEN IFILL: That's pretty good for unprepared. I can't wait to hear the answer to that one. Chris?

CHRIS KREHMEYER: What would I do differently? I'd get a different dog.

What kind of dog was that? I never heard of that kind of dog before. I'd go to the pound and, you know, pick a mutt out. A Portuguese something?

GWEN IFILL: The dog answer is such a cop-out.

Congressman, I'm going to make everybody answer this question. I really like it.

REP. WILLIAM LACY CLAY, JR.: I will shift away from the dog and talk about -- I would probably treat the bailouts differently and treat it with a little more evenhandedness, when you think about the several billion that have gone into the automakers in comparison to the $700 billion that have gone into Wall Street.

Now, the issue was raised that we were able to remove the head of one of the auto company. But when you think about what happened initially when the Congress passed the $700 billion to bail out Wall Street -- which, by the way, I voted against -- because I didn't think they had a plan then, and they don't have one now.

I would treat these bailouts a little differently. I would probably ensure that the average American had their finances shored up a little better than what we have done in Washington.


PATTI YORK: Well, I kind of go back to the bailout. I would do more loans on the local level. I would love to borrow money. Because of the economy, we've stopped doing anything, and that doesn't help the economy.

I think the other thing is, I'd kind of go back to the 1930s and try to come up with some innovative, creative ways to build schools, a lot of capital to build roads, and do some exciting things. That's when we built Forest Park and we added a parks and recreation, and a lot of things -- a lot of quality-of-life issues back into communities. That's what I'd like to see.

GWEN IFILL: And Senator?

JOHN DANFORTH: We have an economic crisis, no doubt about it. And government has to be active in dealing with that, and government has to spend a lot of money in dealing with it.

But I would have an exit strategy. In other words, I would make sure that government, in dealing with the emergency, is dealing with it on a limited basis rather than on a permanent basis, and I think that the way the president has done this tends to be permanent.

Deficits and future generations

GWEN IFILL: I have a question here from a shy person in the audience. Is anyone concerned with the ballooning deficits that we'll be leaving to our children and grandchildren? The senator's nodding and smiling, so you get to answer that one.

JOHN DANFORTH: Yes. I mean, it's wonderful to listen to, "Do you have money for this program, that program, education, adult education, housing, and so on?" And it is just -- it's fabulous, but it's also doubling the national debt in five years. Who's going to pay for this? I mean, where is it going to come from?

GWEN IFILL: Do people just not care about the deficit right now...

JOHN DANFORTH: I don't hear it.

GWEN IFILL: ... in times of economic crisis?

JOHN DANFORTH: I mean, I think there's some commentary about it. But how about our children? How about our grandchildren? Most people here are so young, you don't have grandchildren. I've got 13 of them. How about them? I mean, what's going to happen to future generations?

And are we just going to -- are we just going to run the printing presses, and create more and more, and inflate our way out of this situation, which is the way I think we're heading?

PATTI YORK: I'm also very concerned, as are my kids. You know, they're looking at their kids. Their grandkids will be paying this off for a long time. And where is that threshold?

REP. WILLIAM LACY CLAY, JR.: I think you will see a change in priorities from this administration. You see it now in the proposals he's put forward, one, asking his cabinet to find $100 million...

JOHN DANFORTH: That's nothing.

REP. WILLIAM LACY CLAY, JR.: Wait a minute. Let me finish. Two, to redirect the priorities of the defense budget. A lot of communities are up in arms about... the F-22, the C-17. That impacts this community, too. But you see Secretary Gates and this administration saying, no, we're going to get rid of these obsolete weapon systems that don't matter. They're Cold War relics. And we are going to reprioritize our defense system. And you will see the Congress adopt a pay-as-you-go budgeting.

So, I mean, Senator Danforth, I'm sure you will have to see it to believe it, being from Missouri, but you will see it.

GWEN IFILL: You know, now they're talking Missouri smack to each other. I'm from Washington. I have to bow out of that.

Moderator's privilege. I get the last question, and I hope you all take a shot at it. We've now come the first 100 days. Let's pick another 100 days, another 200 days, 300 days.

What would you like the president to do? What would you like to see him do in these next 100 days, especially challenges which will affect people here in the heartland, here in St. Louis, people who feel some distance from a lot of the debates in Washington?


JOHN DANFORTH: First of all, I hope this trajectory, the word that we've used before, is not just going to go on and on. I hope that there's going to be an exit strategy from all this stuff.

Secondly, he has got to deal with the problem of the entitlements, namely, Social Security and Medicare. That is the ticking time bomb for America's economy. He has really done nothing about it to date, and I think he better get on with it, and it has to be a bipartisan approach.

GWEN IFILL: Mayor York?

PATTI YORK: I think health care is a very big issue. That's something that he ran on, and I think it's something that we're waiting to see. What are we going to do? And what it's going to cost us? And what's it going to cost in the future? I would like to see him focus more on that.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Clay?

REP. WILLIAM LACY CLAY, JR.: Gwen, I think you will see some of the issues that were raised tonight. You will see us tackle health care and come up with some solutions to provide all Americans some semblance of health care coverage.

You will see us improve, from the federal government's perspective, our relationship with public education in this country. You will see job creation with new technologies, with energy initiatives. You will see us create jobs through that and through health care, through health I.T., transferring paper medical records to electronic ones.

Those will all -- you will see that happen over the next 100, 200, 300 days.

GWEN IFILL: Chris Krehmeyer, in your fantasies?

CHRIS KREHMEYER: In my fantasies, I want there to be a national housing policy. I want there to be a national community development policy that says nothing's more important than home, nothing's more important than where we raise our children each and every day, nothing is more important than that place where we all come home to every night, sit around the dinner table to talk about our dreams and our hopes for the future, and allocate the resources so we're clear that every child, every family has a decent, safe, affordable place to live, not only in their home, but in their community.

GWEN IFILL: Chris Krehmeyer, Congressman William Lacy Clay, Jr., Mayor Patti York, and Sen. John Danforth, thank you all very much.